Gene Editing photo
John B. Carnett

Since the mid-2000s, scientists have been experimenting with and perfecting optogenetics, a light-based technique that could treat neurological disorders from Parkinson’s to depression. Since the experiments have been fairly invasive, most have been done on mice or rats. But that may soon change; the company Circuit Therapeutics, run by psychologist (and Brilliant 10 alum) Karl Deisseroth, is likely to start clinical trials for optogenetics in humans, according to Scientific American.

Optogenetics treats disease by directing light at neurons to temporarily turn them on or off. But for that technique to work in mice, researchers have had to make two big modifications to their biology. First, researchers have to tweak mice’s genes (and would have to for human’s genes as well) since neurons don’t naturally respond to light. Second, they need to direct light deep into the brain, which has traditionally been done with obtrusive implants that require major surgery to put in place. So even though optogenetics could help people with many different medical conditions, it’s understandable that they might be reluctant to receive such invasive procedures.

Now, clinical trials might be possible for the first time because of significant technological advances. The light-emitting implant can be replaced by a patch, eliminating the need for the invasive surgery. And while viruses have made genetic manipulation in humans easier, it’s not yet perfect. Soon, new genetic modification tools like CRISPR might provide the most elegant solution to date, but only if officials loosen regulations surrounding CRISPR use on humans.

In November, Circuit Therapuetics announced that it had received a contract from DARPA to use optogenetics to treat chronic pain. Treatments for that condition will likely be the first to be tested in clinical trials. If the experiments go well, the treatment could be available in a decade, opening the door for optogenetics to be used in clinical treatments for a number of other conditions.